There’s a lot of talk lately about parking, whether it’s new no-parking developments on SE Division St. as we mentioned recently, occupying parking spaces with the newly debuted “street seats”, or claims that the car is the “most dangerous invention in the world”. Whatever your personal opinion it is a fact that we have to deal with cars, either inside or around them, on a daily basis. As someone who doesn’t drive, my perspective is mostly on a pedestrian level and only occasionally as a passenger. In my neighborhood in Portland I can walk to whatever services I need, several bus stops that can take me downtown and over the river, a MAX station, and even the streetcar which will soon be servicing the east side of town. Most of the time my experience inside cars involves an exciting trip to Ikea on the outskirts of town when there are larger items to retrieve, or in a taxi late at night after public transportation services have ended. It came as some surprise to me then to view the city, and my neighborhood in particular, from the perspective of an out-of-town visitor during my wedding a month ago.
Leading up to the event I advised my guests that Portland is difficult to drive in downtown (where the wedding would be) and that it is in fact a rather small downtown area that can be easily traversed via foot, streetcar, or taxi. I advised against renting a vehicle aiming for lower costs and convenience, though some (by necessity or choice) did drive in the city. Unbeknownst to me, this would become the takeaway first impression for most of the visitors: Portland hates cars. I will admit that I am very fond of this city and made it my goal to have a very Portland wedding that would show my family and friends this lovely city that I am making my life in. Having lived here on a car-lite lifestyle and studying livable urbanism for the past two years, it almost came as a kind of reverse culture-shock to hear family exclaiming their frustration at a lack of parking. Even with the delight of the celebration, their opinion of Portland will forever be peppered with the negative views they had simply because they attempted to traverse it by car.
“But that’s good urban planning!”, you may cry, as I did. Making parking less convenient does seem to have an effect, even on my newly-transplanted friends from Phoenix who refuse to drive unnecessarily if it means having to spend 20 minutes looking for a parking space when they return (unscientific, but a good example). Young people are driving less, and Portland in particular has the highest bicycle mode share split in the country (somewhere between 5-7%) with plans to increase this number. We know now, as many speculated, that building more roads or expanding highways does not decrease congestion but actually makes things worse. Why then, with all of these trends forecasted towards decidedly less car-reliant futures for urban areas (and environmental, economic, sustainability, and safety related reasons in tow), would we continue with outdated auto-centric urbanism such as increasing on-street parking or lots or widening roads all in the name of assisting an out-of-state tourist who decided to rent a car (no offense, Grandmom)?
When faced with being called “anti-car” or that there is a “war on cars”, it can seem disheartening, especially when I myself do not physically drive. There are many, many others, however, who share these same progressive planning feelings who do drive and know people who drive and are not bent on “waging a war” against something that we know will probably never go away. This blog post recently reposted on Planetizen sums it up nicely: “Cutting dependence on cars isn’t anti-car, it’s common sense”. As they mention in the article, it just makes more sense to be equitable and allow for that celebrated, and for some necessary, walkability. Sometimes I feel as though these principles are so solid, so common sense in my academic and personal circles, that I forget how difficult it can be to communicate all of this data to the public. So what does this mean for the image of a city? Even with all of the progressive planning and walkability, it’s entirely likely that some members of my family will think of Portland in a fairly negative light whether mentioning it in conversations or when choosing where to live. It’s true that you can’t please them all, but it’s clear a first impression can make or break a city, especially for those who don’t have the time or inclination to give it a second chance.